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How to Travel the World Without Leaving Your Living Room

Following surgery, this is how I escape.

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image of televisions with different travel related shows on screen
Elena Lacey
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Most of my life, I’ve been a world traveler. Yet thanks to recent surgery, I’ve become an armchair traveler instead. I’ve been stuck convalescing on my sofa for months.

The good news is that anyone with limited mobility, income or energy can travel the world without leaving their living room. Through cable TV, streaming services, podcasts and YouTube you can ride motorcycles across Ethiopia; hike mountain peaks in the Azores; luxuriate on private islands in the Caribbean; eat noodles at Vietnamese street markets; whale-watch near Antarctica; and experience magnificent sulfuric geysers in Iceland without actually having to smell them.

All it takes is a click. So, me? I’ve been everywhere now.

To be fair, I avoided sources that focus on how traveling is highly transformative. Bah humbug. I’ve had surgery. I’ve been transformed enough. I don’t want to plan vacations or hear people’s epiphanies. I just want to go somewhere amazing.

And I have — thanks to these great virtual escapes currently available on different platforms.

The World on a Plate

Food is a great gateway to other cultures, so more than a few travel shows use it as a prism. In Somebody Feed Phil, affable Phil Rosenthal eats his way through countries with the gleefulness of a kid. In CNN’s Searching for Italy, charming Stanley Tucci explores his ancestral homeland through the cuisine of different regions. Self-described “Texican” Eva Longoria does the same in Searching for Mexico, sunnily eating her way from Yucatan to Oaxaca.

But the gold standard of the genre, which elevates it to high art, is the late Anthony Bourdain’s Emmy-winning Parts Unknown.

Bourdain goes everywhere: Iran, the Congo, Peru, China, Libya, Greece, eating everything from street food to home-cooked feasts to haute cuisine. Every location is approached and filmed uniquely, and Bourdain’s incisive commentary situates the food within a richer context. You learn about a region’s culture, politics, history and struggles. Sometimes, Bourdain’s takes are humorous. Sometimes sad, damning, inspiring or outraged. But you always come away feeling you’ve seen something revelatory — that he’s fed your mind itself. Streaming episodes of Bourdain’s adventures keep his larger-than-life spirit immortal.

Riding Motorcycles with Boys

In 2004, actor Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman rode motorcycles from London to New York City — starting east. Biking across Europe, Central Asia and Russia, they leaped across the Pacific and headed down through Canada to mainland USA. Wearing cameras embedded in their helmets and trailed by a skeleton crew, they documented this trip in a series, Long Way Around.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about watching this. The prospect of two privileged British guys “discovering” other countries struck me as patronizing and just plain icky. Happily, though, I was proven wrong. McGregor and Boorman fall off their bikes, sleep in tents, joke, grumble, visit UNICEF projects and live entirely in the moment.

They’re hugely unassuming and appreciative of everything they experience. And you feel you’re right there on their bikes, riding across the open steppes yourself, encountering everything along with them. It’s immersive escapism at its finest.

McGregor and Boorman’s adventure was so enthralling that they embarked on two more. In 2007, they did Long Way Down, riding from Scotland down the length of Africa. In 2020, in Long Way Up, they revved up electric motorcycles this time — and rode from Patagonia to Los Angeles. When their final epic concluded, I was bereft. I wanted their adventure to keep going. Alas, they’ve run out of continents.

Real Estate Porn

Granted, Netflix’s The World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals is likely a glorified ad for companies like Airbnb and VRBO. But this drool-inducing real estate porn is set in stunning locations — so what’s not to love? Plus, it’s hosted by three diverse, dynamic hosts, Megan Batoon (Filipino-American), Jo Franco (Brazilian) and Luis Ortiz (Puerto Rican), whose rental recommendations always include “unusual,” “budget” and “luxury.” So you’re not watching rich realtors showing off properties that only other rich people can rent. These hosts dream for all budgets.

With them, you get to stay overnight in a jaw-dropping treehouse in Bali, an architectural masterpiece in the California desert, and a sumptuous ski chalet in Japan. You camp in a van, sail on houseboats and sleep inside lighthouses. At each stop, you also have an amazing local adventure, be it mountain climbing, kayaking or horseback riding.

Best of all? It’s vicarious. When the three hosts climb the vertiginous jagged peaks of Alaska’s Via Ferrata, you get all of the thrills, but none of the panic.

Tracking Pumas with a President

After all this eating and real estate, I’ve craved the great outdoors. Netflix’s Our Great National Parks has taken me there. Narrated by — surprise — President Barack Obama, this series explores phenomenal nature reserves around the world, from Gambia to Indonesia to, yes, the United States. While the documentary underscores the need to protect our ecosystems, its main focus — and superstars — are the amazing species, wildlife and landscapes it captures in brilliant detail.

Other superstars of the series? The photographers. Frankly, I don’t know how the heck they got what they did on camera: Pumas stalking prey, orcas attacking a baby whale, monarch butterflies migrating. The footage is extraordinary. The series opened up worlds within worlds to me that I never knew existed — and transported me to all of them.

Fearless Young Women on YouTube

YouTube is great for short getaways — and for going on adventures with intrepid young women. Some of my favorites?

Influencer Kristina Collins, a.k.a. @kallmekris, is mostly known for her pop culture commentary that likely appeals to your grandkids. Still, her video, My ICELAND Experience, is incredibly winning and evocative. She films herself as she treks across the landscape, with all her trepidation and delight, so that you feel you’re climbing lava flows right beside her.

Professional photographer Allison Anderson takes you along on her assignments to places like Namibia, Antarctica and Istanbul. She’s a personable guide who shows you where she stays and how she travels, but mostly, she lets her photography do the talking — and it’s breathtaking. Her videos are of the same caliber as National Geographic — but only 13 minutes long.

Travel Stories Read Aloud

Lastly, if it’s screens themselves you want to escape from, try the podcast, “Escape Routes.” Writers read audio versions of their articles for Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Each “trip” lasts only 13 to 20 minutes, and listening to travelers narrate their own adventures brings them intimately to life.

This is perhaps the ultimate armchair traveling: You can even do it with your eyes closed.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Courtesy Apple TV+; Isaac Brekken/Stringer/Getty Images; Courtesy Netflix (2); ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection; Courtesy Netflix. TV Sets & remote: Getty Images

Do you watch any travel shows on TV or on YouTube? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.

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